Monday, August 10, 2015

Trump v. Fox News Explained

Ezra Klein explains why Donald Trump felt betrayed by Fox News on

It's not just about what happened at Thursday's debate. It's also about the way Fox News had, until Thursday, been inflating the Trump bubble, and the broader tension between Fox News's role as a ratings-obsessed cable network, an actual journalistic outlet, and one of the most important institutional actors in the Republican Party.

Until Thursday, Fox News had been one of Trump's most important allies. The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters notes that between May 1st, 2015, and July 31st, 2015, Donald Trump was given, by far, the most airtime of any GOP presidential contender, with 31 appearances on the network; Jeb Bush, by contrast, only had 7. And more than simple airtime, Fox News's hosts defended Trump when the rest of the media was piling onto his more noxious comments.

But there's been at least one powerful critic of Trump at Fox News: Rupert Murdoch. On July 22nd, New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman, author of a biography of Roger Ailes, reported that there was a schism at Fox News over Donald Trump. Murdoch loathed Trump so much that he took to Twitter to make his feelings known. "When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?" he asked.

Donald Trump's post-debate tantrum has been an embarrassment. But it's not, on some level, a surprise. After months when Fox News was his main ally, Trump stepped onto the Fox News debate stage and suddenly found the network seemingly committed to his destruction.

There was Bret Baier's opening question about a pledge not to run as a third party candidate, Megyn Kelly's asking Trump to explain past misogynistic public comments, Chris Wallace asking Trump to explain his racist comments about Mexican immigrants and Frank Luntz' focus group following the debate showing Trump losing support.

Look at the debate from Trump's perspective. His onetime friends at Fox News crafted the questions to embarrass him and then, once he was off the air, cut to a focus group — and who knows if that was a real focus group or actors who were coached on what to say — who told the whole country that Trump had lost the debate.

Fox News is a strange beast. It is a conservative advocacy organization run by a longtime Republican operative. It is a profit-hungry cable network run by a talented media executive. And it is a news operation that employs some talented journalists who want to be taken seriously by their peers.

These missions conflict with each other. Fox News wants the Republican Party to win elections but it also wants American politics to be a ridiculous circus that fires up conservative voters. It employs hacks like Steve Doocy and Sean Hannity but also hosts people like Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, Shepard Smith, and Chris Wallace who, while they might be conservative, pride themselves on actually being journalists.

And what makes all this harder is that Fox News is tremendously powerful. It is arguably more powerful in shaping the opinions of GOP voters than the official Republican Party apparatus. It's no accident that the first Republican debate was held on Fox News. Of course it was. The Republican Party needs Fox News more than Fox News needs the the Republican Party — something the GOP learned when Fox devoted endless airtime to pumping the rise of the Tea Party.

As heterodox conservative commentator David Frum said, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox."

This is the dilemma that Trump now faces. He originally thought Fox worked for him. he was on all the time, he was helping them get higher ratings, and they seemed to love him. But then a few things happened.

First, Fox's promotion of Trump worked too well. He went from making the Republican primary more interesting to follow — and thus better for ratings — to dominating the Republican primary and potentially harming the ideological movement that Fox supports. Murdoch's public opposition to Trump was a signal that the network wasn't likely to tolerate Trump actually becoming the Republican nominee.

Second, Trump had spent much of his time in the hackier corners of the network — outposts of conservative inanity like Fox and Friends. But the debate was led by Fox's more serious personalities. Baier, Kelly, and Wallace want to be known as some of the toughest questioners in news business — and Trump was a chance to prove their journalistic bona fides to the world. So where other Fox personalities wanted to treat Trump well in the hopes he would come back on their shows, Baier, Kelly, and Wallace wanted to embarrass Trump.

Finally, Fox News's incentives had switched. Early in the campaign, the way to get bigger ratings was to build Trump up. But now the whole country was tuning in, and what most people wanted to see was Trump torn down — or at least the fight that would result if Fox News tried to tear Trump down. And that's what they got. It was extraordinary television, and it led Fox to the highest ratings for any cable news program ever broadcast. Fox figured out how to profit off Trump coming and going, and, better yet, they got to decide when Trump was coming and when Trump was going.

Now Trump and Fox News are at war. And, as Nate Silver writes, this is a war Trump probably can't win.

Until now, Trump has mostly been fighting with institutions that Republicans mistrust — like the media, and the Republican establishment in Washington, DC. But 80 percent of Republicans trust Fox News. And Fox News is the most reliable source of cable airtime for Republican candidates trying to reach Republican voters.

Perhaps as importantly, there are few parts of the contemporary conservative movement that aren't woven into Fox News. So Fox has allies that go well beyond its walls. An example is Erick Erickson of, who disinvited Trump from a RedState event after his comments about Kelly. Erickson, who has his own history of sexist commentary, is an influential conservative in his own right, but he is also a Fox News contributor.

So far, Trump had found he can divide and conquer by separating a certain segment of the conservative base from the Republican Party. But it's much harder to cleave conservatives from Fox News, because both in terms of money and exposure, it's much more important for leading conservatives to be in the good graces side of Fox News than in the good graces of Donald Trump. The angrier Trump makes Fox News, the fewer friends he will find he has.

Trump's feeling that he's been betrayed by Fox News is understandable, even if his reaction to it is gross and childish. But his declaration of war against a major Fox News personality is unwise, and may mark the beginning of the end of his campaign.

No comments: